Friday, February 17, 2017

Is the Russian Spy Ship A Problem?

One of the challenges in the current environment is that events that really are routine, and not a big deal, are getting a great of attention. Quite frankly, part of the problem is that there are only a few reporters who seem to understand the larger national security context, and they think that there is yet another outrage by the Trump Administration that is simply not there. This is especially the case when the story involves Russia.
The latest example is the mild hysteria about the Russian spy ship off the East Coast. Isn't this a threat? Should President Trump be doing something about this? Isn't this yet another example of Trump ignoring Russian outrages. In a word, no.
In fact, I suspect the officials in both the Navy and Air Force are quite happy with this development. Here is why.
Under the Law of the Sea, territorial waters are limited to 12 miles off the coastline. While countries have a 200 mile exclusive economic zone, warships of other countries are permitted to make travel in these waters for "peaceful purposes". While the US has not adopted the Law of the Sea, we recognize these rules as customary international law. Heck, we do more than pay lip service to these rules, we actively take advantage of them. U.S. Air Force surveillance planes known as RC-135 "Rivot Joints" routinely fly a bit more than 12 miles off the coast of China, Russia and other countries of interest. The Navy has ships that do similar missions. The Chines routinely complain that this is illegal. We just as routinely assert our freedom of navigation to continue these missions. This came to a head in 2009, when five Chinese warships surrounded the USNS Impeccable, a US Navy ocean surveillance vessel, and ordered it to leave the area. The Chinese continue to take the view that such military activities cannot be undertaken in the exclusive economic zone. The US position continues to be to the contrary.
So a Russia ship that comes to our coast one every few years is great because it reinforces a principle of international law that we take advantage of far more routinely. This is important because customary international law is developed by the actions of nations over time. By acting in a manner consistent with our view, they reinforce our rights to continue to do the same. So my former colleagues at the Pentagon are very happy right now, the outrage would be if the Trump Administration took action inconsistent with our longstanding view of the legality, under international law, of these kinds of operations.
And don't be concerned--i am confident that the Russians won't get much of interest from this mission. I am just as confident that we were learn far more about them by monitoring this ship.

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